The Wildwoods, a group of small shore towns situated on a five-mile-long barrier island along the southern New Jersey coastline, are home to one of the most important architectural collections of the 20th century. They contain a trove of midcentury modern motels that make up the largest concentration of postwar resort architecture in the United States. They remain fully functioning and virtually unchanged since their original construction, in many cases over fifty years ago.
Adopting a spare aesthetic and using contemporary materials such as poured concrete and glass, the motels brought European high modernism to America’s middle class. Applying the idea of the “decorated shed”, a term coined by renowned postmodern architects Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown and Steve Izenour in their seminal 1972 book Learning from Las Vegas, each motel relies on unique architectural features and symbolic ornament to form its own identity and set itself apart from the others nearby. Infused with space-age optimism and experimentation, and utilizing the iconography of faraway, exotic destinations, these structures represent the way American families vacationed during the postwar era.
Built to cater to the annual influx of summer tourists that began vacationing in the area in the mid-1950s, the motels have always faced a steep decline in visitors during the rest of the year, leaving most with no choice but to close for the off-season. Normally vibrant and full of life, they sit shuttered and vacant for nine months every year, acting as unoccupied time capsules of summers past. Their boldly colored facades, futurist details, and exuberant neon signage sit in stark contrast against the eerie, unpopulated emptiness of the winter months, transforming these beach towns into real life abandoned film sets.
In the late 1990s, Venturi, Scott Brown and Izenour visited The Wildwoods to study the motels. During this time, Izenour spearheaded a multi-university research studio, aptly titled Learning from The Wildwoods, which documented the buildings in hopes of protecting and preserving them. Since then, however, more than half of the 300 motels that once stood have been sold and demolished, making way for conventional, high-rise condominiums. The halftone compositions, which are sourced from vintage motel-issued postcards of The Wildwoods, act as a way to consider the life and memory of the places depicted, all of which are no longer standing. Even in the constructed, idealized world of a postcard, the subject’s disillusionment and uncertainty are present. These intimate moments are starkly juxtaposed with the inherent joyfulness of summer vacation that the initial compositions seek to portray.
As a native of the Jersey Shore, I am greatly influenced by the vernacular architecture, seasonal economy, and off-season vacancy of a tourist destination. This project explores the fleeting moments that occur at places designed and known for summer recreation.